News and Press Releases

Seattle Resident Abused Name Change System to Cheat Banks on Debit Card Purchases

November 18, 2009

LUIS CERNA, 25, of Seattle, Washington, was sentenced today in U.S. District Court in Seattle to 21 months in prison and $204,396 in restitution for Misuse of a Social Security Number and Bank Fraud. CERNA, who was brought to the U.S. as a six-year-old, will likely be deported following his prison term. CERNA pleaded guilty August 18, 2009, admitting that he defrauded six different banks by opening and misusing 35 different bank accounts. CERNA used Social Security numbers that did not belong to him, and frequently legally changed his name to continue his fraud scheme. At sentencing U.S. District Judge Marsha J. Pechman noted that the fraud occurred “over a long period of time.” And the Judge questioned why CERNA had not taken steps as an adult to obtain legal status in the U.S. “You will face challenges (in Mexico)... however you have some skills,” Judge Pechman said.

According to records filed in the case, CERNA kept an elaborate scheme underway for about three years defrauding Key Bank, Bank of America, Sterling Savings Bank, U.S. Bank, Chase Bank and Banner Bank. CERNA facilitated his bank fraud scheme by changing his name frequently and obtaining identification cards or driver licenses in his new names. He obtained three new names by petitioning for name changes in State District Courts, presenting documents with the new names to the Department of Licensing, and obtaining new identification cards and driver licenses. Mr. CERNA used these identification cards and driver licenses as identification documents when he opened new bank accounts. CERNA then would make debit card purchases with the accounts, and would immediately claim to the bank that the purchases were unauthorized. The bank would restore the funds pending an investigation. CERNA would remove the money from the account. Sometimes he would return the items purchased with the debit card and have the money credited to other accounts. He would keep this money and use it for his own purposes. With his web of accounts in a variety of names CERNA defrauded Bank of America of more than $140,000 and U.S. Bank of more than $36,000. Losses for the other banks were between $3,000 and $13,000. CERNA was arrested on July 22, 2009.

In her sentencing memo Special Assistant United States Attorney Johanna Vanderlee noted that this fraud makes life difficult for all consumers. “The Defendant’s activities affect the public because banks that experience these types of fraud transactions will make it more difficult for real victims of stolen debit or credit cards to reverse fraudulent transactions,” Ms. Vanderlee wrote in her sentencing memo.

The case was investigated by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The case was prosecuted by Special Assistant United States Attorney Johanna Vanderlee. Ms. Vanderlee is an attorney with the Social Security Administration, specially designated to prosecute social security related crimes in federal court.

For additional information please contact Emily Langlie, Public Affairs Officer for the United States Attorney’s Office, at (206) 553-4110 or Emily.Langlie@USDOJ.Gov.

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